Families hope new NC law could bring justice for fentanyl deaths

GASTONIA, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — There are a lot of families hurting in North Carolina.  

The state has seen 16,000 killed from fentanyl this year through July alone, according to the Fentanyl Victims Network of North Carolina. 

That’s 16,000 families missing a loved one because of a growing nationwide fentanyl epidemic. Tracy Sauderson-Ross wishes she would have been home back on Sept. 26, 2022, when her 16-year-old daughter, Abi, was dealing with leg pain and Abi’s boyfriend tried to help. 

“He decided to call a buddy of his to get a Percocet,” described Saunderson-Ross. “She took half of the Percocet, it was a bar, and it was 36 nanograms of fentanyl, and she passed away in the middle of the night.” 

Marshall Abbott was out with friends on June 30, 2022, the day before his 30th birthday. A friend he was with bought something. The family still doesn’t know what it was, but they know a loving father didn’t wake up. 

“Marshall had 72 nanograms of fentanyl in his system,” said Elizabeth Abernathy. “He didn’t stand a chance. He was gone before he even crawled into the bed.” 

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Statesville man charged in 2022 drug overdose death, sheriff says

A 26-year-old was taken to Iredell Memorial Hospital due to a drug overdose and later died, deputies said.

STATESVILLE, N.C. (WBTV) – A deadly 2022 fentanyl overdose in Iredell County has led to charges being filed more than a year later.

Deputies were called to Hickory Highway in Statesville on July 23, 2022, for a possible drug overdose, according to the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office.

A 26-year-old was taken to Iredell Memorial Hospital due to a drug overdose and later died, deputies said.

During the investigation, 26-year-old Dakoda Michael Drake, of Statesville, was identified as the person who provided fentanyl to the victim, according to the sheriff’s office.

“After months of waiting, the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office recently received the Toxicology Report indicating the victim’s cause of death was confirmed as a Fentanyl overdose,” a news release stated.

An arrest warrant was obtained for Drake and he was arrested on Nov. 24 for felony death by distribution, deputies said.

He was given a $350,000 secured bond on this charge.

Read the full article on the WBTV website.

They Were Go-To Dealers for College Students. Now They’re Headed to Prison.

A trial in federal court last week stemming from the overdose of a 23-year-old Raleigh man exposed the inner workings of a drug-dealing duo and their college-student clients.

The weekend of March 4, 2023, was a big one in the Triangle. 

Big for thousands of students and alums because longtime basketball rivals Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were facing off. Big for crowded restaurants and bars that had the Saturday night game in UNC’s Dean Dome on their wide-screen TVs.

And big for Cye Frasier and his girlfriend, Carlisa Allen, who expected to bring in $10,000 in drug sales that weekend from their primary customer base: college students.

That weekend was the first time Josh Zinner, a former UNC-Wilmington student from Raleigh, purchased directly from Frasier and Allen, according to testimony last week in federal court. His roommate, a former UNC-Chapel Hill student and Phi Gamma Delta member, referred him to Frasier.

Continue reading “They Were Go-To Dealers for College Students. Now They’re Headed to Prison.”

A double-edged sword: North Carolina expands the fight against fentanyl

Changes to a North Carolina law make it easier to prosecute people who distribute drugs, including fentanyl, if the drug user dies


Carolina Public Press interviewed six parents of children who died and the partner of a man who did as well. Fentanyl, a powerful narcotic painkiller, was involved in each death. Often, those close to the victims reported, prosecutors declined to bring charges for death by distribution, saying the evidence was not strong enough.

Under a state law that takes effect next month, anyone who provides certain drugs to a person who dies after taking them may be prosecuted for second-degree murder — whether they received money for the drugs or shared them freely. 

Death by distribution” first became a crime in North Carolina in 2019. Originally, the law applied only to people who got paid for drugs that later proved fatal. In September, legislators expanded the law’s reach to include anyone who provides certain drugs, including fentanyl, when those drugs result in an overdose death.

Carolina Public Press interviewed six parents of children who died and the partner of a man who died as well. Fentanyl, a powerful narcotic painkiller, was involved in each death. Most of the families reported that prosecutors declined to bring charges for death by distribution, saying that the evidence was not strong enough. 

The family members, as well as people who study drug use or work to combat it, are divided over whether the law’s approach is good or bad. Those in favor described death by distribution charges as essential to bring justice in fentanyl death cases. Critics argued that the strategy could unjustly criminalize and disproportionately affect substance users and people of color. 

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Drug dealer sentenced for deadly overdose in Union County

Trenton Latres Butler, 27, convicted of second-degree murder

UNION COUNTY, N.C. — A “self-admitted drug dealer” will spend two decades in prison after his role in a deadly overdose that happened last March in Union County.

The Union County Sheriff’s Office said Trenton Latres Butler was convicted of second-degree murder, trafficking in opium/heroin, and two counts of possession of a firearm by a felon on Tuesday.

According to the sheriff’s office, Butler sold fentanyl pills to 26-year-old Javier Ramirez-Sanchez in March of 2022. Ramirez-Sanchez died after taking the dose.

Investigators also said that Butler “repeatedly sold pressed fentanyl pills” and a gun to a confidential informant. Authorities searched Butler’s home and found more than 800 pressed fentanyl pills, Tramadol pills, Oxycodone pills, marijuana, and several guns.

On Tuesday, Butler was sentenced to serve between 225 and 282 months in prison and pay a $500,000 fine, according to the sheriff’s office.

Union County District Attorney Trey Robison said his office “will continue to aggressively prosecute fentanyl dealers who are poisoning our community.”

Read the full article on the Opera News website.

Changes to the Death by Distribution Law

The opioid crisis seems to be getting worse every year. NCDHHS reports that in 2021, over 4,000 North Carolinians died from opioid overdoses, up 22% from the prior year. Most deaths were related to the consumption of fentanyl.

One strategy for addressing the epidemic is punishing those who distribute deadly drugs. In 2019, the General Assembly enacted G.S. 14-18.4, making it a felony to sell a controlled substance that causes the death of a user. The law is commonly known as the death by distribution law. This session, the General Assembly passed a revised version of the law. This post explains the revisions.

The original law. The 2019 law made it a Class C felony to (1) sell a qualifying drug, including an opioid, cocaine, or methamphetamine (2) thereby proximately causing (3) the death of a user. Further, (4) the defendant must have acted “without malice,” perhaps because a person acting with malice could potentially be prosecuted for Class B2 second-degree murder by distribution of drugs under G.S. 14-17(b)(2). The 2019 law also created an aggravated Class B2 felony version of death by distribution for defendants with a qualifying drug conviction within the past seven years.

ABC11 has this story about the implementation of the 2019 law. It reports that death by distribution has not been charged at all in most counties, while it has been charged regularly in some others. Shea wrote about the original law here, and Phil wrote about defending death by distribution cases here.

Status of the revised version. Last week, the General Assembly passed S189 to revise the death by distribution law. It passed the Senate 45-0 and the House 81-20. Governor Cooper has not signed it, but it appears that it will become law without his signature shortly. Obviously, the measure passed by veto-proof majorities in both chambers. Unless something unexpected happens, the law will take effect on December 1, 2023, for offenses committed on or after that date. [Update: Governor Cooper signed the measure on September 28, 2023. The effective date remains December 1, 2023.]

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Barb Walsh, founder and executive director of the Fentanyl Victims Network of North Carolina

The fentanyl crisis has taken the lives of more than 13,000 North Carolinians in recent years and it’s currently killing eight North Carolinians a day. The rise in overdose deaths is driven by illegally manufactured fentanyl.

The group Fentanyl Victims Network of North Carolina recently joined NC Newsline for an extended conversation, in which founder Barb Walsh shared her family’s story, described the organization she leads, and shared some of the policy changes the group is seeking from state leaders.

Editor’s note: This is a rebroadcast of an interview NC Newsline originally aired August 20, 2023.

Listen to the interview and read the original article on the NCNewsline website.

UNC student’s family seeks justice for overdose death

The family of a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill freshman student who died after overdosing on fentanyl-laced cocaine on the campus of Duke University is seeking some justice for their daughter.

So far, no one has been charged in the death of Elizabeth Grace Burton, or Gracie as her family called her. She was 19 years old.

Court documents reveal Burton became “unsteady” and “wobbly on her feet” about an hour after meeting with a suspected drug dealer on March 9 outside a Duke student’s dorm. The former Duke student is Patrick Rowland, who pleaded guilty to a drug distribution charge.

An autopsy revealed Burton died two days after investigators said she met up with Rowland after a party and contacted him to buy cocaine.

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Why drug distribution investigations can take months, years before charges are filed

Despite the state cracking down on people who deal deadly drugs, holding those responsible remains difficult.

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – Fentanyl claims the lives of about 12 North Carolinians every day.

Death by distribution laws hold the dealers accountable if users die, but it’s not as simple as tracking the dealer down.

New Hanover and Pender County district attorney Ben David says most cases involving death by distribution don’t go to trial, often because the nature of the crime doesn’t leave much evidence.

“The best victim can’t tell you what happened. And so, we have to try these like any homicide, relying on things like digital footprints and witness interviews,” David said.

David says because they need evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, investigations can take months, sometimes even more than a year, before charges are filed. It’s worth it to the families who have lost someone.

“Everyone’s someone’s baby. And we know that this epidemic is visiting houses across our district. And we are going to go wherever we can to make sure that justice is being done,” he said.

Part of that justice is stiffer penalties, such as murder charges for the dealer if the user dies.

David isn’t buying it when someone says they didn’t know the drugs were laced.

“No one can claim, at this point, that they’re unaware that fentanyl is deadly. And if they are mixing that into drugs or are selling it in a pure form to begin with, they should not be surprised when their best customers are dying,” David said. “They should not be surprised when we try to put them into prison for murder and nothing less.”

David wants people to know that North Carolinians are protected under immunity to call 9-1-1 in the case of an emergency, even if it involves illegal drugs. It can save lives.

Copyright 2023 WECT. All rights reserved.

Read the full article and watch the video on the WECT News 6 website.

New Hanover County man charged with death by distribution following Rocky Point fentanyl death

ROCKY POINT, N.C. (WECT) – The Pender County Sheriff’s Office released details on Thursday, Oct. 12, concerning the arrest of a New Hanover County man following an investigation into the death of 32-year-old Justin Barnes.

“On September 19, 2022, the Pender County Sheriff’s Office received a report of a death at an address in Rocky Point. Law Enforcement and EMS responded to the address and located 32-year-old Justin Barnes deceased. An autopsy was conducted which showed his death was the result of Fentanyl Toxicity,” the sheriff’s office release states.

According to the announcement, 30-year-old Grayson Kyle Lancaster was arrested on Wednesday, Oct. 11.

“The investigation showed Grayson Kyle Lancaster, a 30-year-old resident of New Hanover County, sold the fentanyl-laced narcotics to Mr. Barnes the day of his death,” the release explains. “Mr. Lancaster has been charged with felony Death by Distribution.”

As of Thursday morning, Lancaster’s bond is set at $1 million.

“Agencies to include New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, Carolina Beach Police Department along with the Wilmington Police Department assisted in this investigation. During these types of investigations, the sheriff’s office works closely with the District Attorney’s Office throughout the investigation.”

Anyone with information about this case is asked to contact the Pender County Sheriff’s Office at (910) 259-1212 and speak with Det. Short or Det. Lane.

Read the full article and watch the video on the WECT News 6 website.